Is individualism bad for society?
Battle of Ideas 2011, 30th October 2011, Royal College of Art, London
Dr Maurice Glasman
architect, âBlue Labourâ; director, faith and citizenship programme, London Metropolitan University; Labour life peer (Baron Glasman); author, Unnecessary Suffering: managing market utopia
author, broadcaster and journalist; leader writer and columnist, Tablet; pannellist; BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze
Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of English Literature, University College London; author, The Lives of the Novelists
Brussels correspondent, Daily Telegraph; author, No Means No!
director, Institute of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze
ââ¦individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machineâ Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism
Everything from social fragmentation to the economic crisis, and the riots that broke out across English cities in the summer, has been blamed on a modern âcult of individualismâ, epitomised by Margaret Thatcherâs insistence that âthere is no such thing as societyâ. Labour leader Ed Miliband denounces âa âtake what you canâ cultureâ that began in the 1980s, which he concedes New Labour did little to challenge. But Tory Prime Minister David Cameron also seeks to distance himself from his infamous predecessor, championing the âBig Societyâ. It has become routine to despair of individualsâ greed for consumer goods. More broadly, strong-willed individuals who know their own minds are accused of arrogance, egotism, even bullying. But isnât there something to be said for individualism? After all, the individual has historically been asssociated with independence of mind, self-determination and self-reliance. Strong individuals have been admired for their courage and imagination, even valued for the unique contributions they can make to society rather than regarded as necessarily undermining social solidarity. So are we wrong to focus on the negatives, or is it time we recognised the damaging effects of individualism? Critics remind us that the individual smokerâs choice can imperil public health; one personâs free speech can cause offence and sow discord for countless others; motorists who insist on their individual freedom to drive petrol-guzzling SUVs clutter the roads and pollute the air.
Meanwhile, developments in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and genetics cast doubt on the very idea of individual autonomy: some suggest free will is an illusion. Individuals are seen as hapless and hopeless if left to their own devices, too easily influenced by the malign advertisers or populist demagogues. Paternalist policy-makers and âchoice architectsâ regard the idea of moral autonomy as little more than an inconvenience, preferring to nudge individuals into making the right choices. But donât diminished views of the individual also undermine the possibility of a strong society? If the âweâ in any collective comprises such feeble individuals, what is the content of society or solidarity?
Arguably, even seemingly self-sacrificing acts of public service - from volunteering to help others to laying down oneâs life for a greater cause - require a strong sense of personal autonomy. By contrast, if we value conformity to social norms above individuality, is our âfree willâ reduced to what JS Mill called âape-like imitationâ? And anyway, does self-interest necessarily preclude generosity, empathy and solidarity? Was selfish individualism really to blame for the summerâs riots? Or was it a breakdown of any sense of individual responsibility that caused so many to join the frenzy of looting? Can âindividualismâ be good for society?